This post is a bit outside the usual topics I discuss on this blog, and I have no doubt I will get angry responses and admonitions to “stay in my lane.” But at a time when America is, once again, being forced to confront our long-standing failure to deal effectively with racial inequities built into our society and institutions, I feel an obligation to address the reality that veterinary medicine is very much a part of this problem.
The facts are relatively straightforward: Over 95% of veterinarians are white in a country where about 80% of the workforce is white. Imagining this is an accident rather than the result of systemic racism is naive or disingenuous. Acknowledging an injustice is critical to rectifying it, and we cannot shy away from clearly and directly describing an unjust reality if we seriously hope to change it. Veterinary medicine is quite possibly the whitest profession in America, and this is like any problem in that we won’t be able to fix it if we don’t acknowledge it.
A common first reaction when a group of mostly white people is asked to consider the issue of racism within their community is defensiveness. There is a misconception that racism is limited to explicitly bigoted and discriminatory behavior by individuals who openly dislike people of color, and since few of us fit that caricature, it is easy to dismiss our own role in perpetuating racial inequities. However, racism is typically more insidious and systemic than this. It is not a problem of a few “bad apples” but a feature of how the barrel is built and maintained.
As an example, AAVMC data shows that the proportion of white applicants to veterinary colleges in 2016 (78.1%) was roughly the same and the proportion of white students in those colleges (78.3%). This suggests that explicit racial discrimination in admissions is not a major barrier to recruiting underserved groups into the veterinary profession. This is encouraging both because such discrimination would reflect poorly on the profession and because it would be a clear violation of federal law.
However, despite this, the representation of individuals from some underrepresented groups in both the applicant pool and as students in veterinary colleges is still dramatically lower than the proportion of the population identifying as members of these groups. For example, African Americans make up about 17% of the U.S. population but only 4.4% of applicants and 2.5% of veterinary students. The situation is actually worse than it sounds because about 70% of black veterinarians are educated at one school: Tuskegee University College of Veterinary Medicine, a historically black college. The underrepresentation of African Americans in veterinary medicine has persisted despite discussion about it and efforts to remedy it going back to the 1970s, and it is evident that there are strong and pervasive systemic factors behind this.
There have been some successes in addressing discrimination in veterinary medicine. Historically underrepresented groups have increased as a proportion of the student population.
Women, in particular, have gone from a small minority to a large minority in veterinary schools, and they are now a majority in the profession and beginning to achieve parity in some areas, such as leadership roles at veterinary schools, though there are still disparities in pay and other indicators of equity.
We have actually reached a point where the overrepresentation of women in some areas of veterinary medicine is problematic. Contrary to a common assumption, diversity is not inherently a concept intended to exclude white people or men, and true diversity in the profession requires a better balance than currently exists in the gender representation among veterinarians.
However, it is important to remember that the historic underrepresentation of women in the field was the result of both individual and systemic discrimination, and the influx of women into the profession can be seen, at least partially, as evidence of effective strategies for combatting this. The underrepresentation of men in veterinary schools today, on the other hand, seems unlikely to represent the same kind of discrimination since it is implausible that a group still in a position of privilege and power in most areas of American society would somehow be excluded by deliberate or systemic discrimination in one small domain like veterinary medicine.
There are likely complex factors involved in the decline in male applicants to veterinary schools, and many of these may involve the ways in which the profession is portrayed and perceived in the culture as well as economic factors. For example, as veterinary medicine has shifted from a focus on food and working animals to companion animals, it may be seen more as a caring or nurturing profession which cultural stereotypes classify as more appropriate for women (women are also overrepresented in pediatrics and nursing, for example). Veterinary medicine is also among the lowest-paid of the medical professions, and men may be more likely to pursue higher-paying jobs (female-dominated professions in general tend to pay less than male-dominated occupations). The growing scarcity of male role models, at least in companion animal medicine, may also be a contributing factor.
The issue of gender representation is relevant to the subject of racism in veterinary medicine both as an example of how historic discrimination can be overcome and also how complex and indirect the factors influencing the recruitment of different groups into the profession can be. The underrepresentation of African Americans in veterinary medicine, for example, is sometimes written off as a lack of interest. This narrative suggests that black people aren’t as interested in animals as white folks and so are less likely to want to be veterinarians. The issue of cultural differences in attitudes towards animals is a real and complex one, but as a facile way of denying racism as a cause for underrepresentation of African Americans in veterinary medicine, it is not convincing.
For one thing, this doesn’t explain the consistent underrepresentation of other minority groups, such as the Latinx community. The idea that multiple historically marginalized groups all just happen to not be interested in veterinary medicine is not plausible. More likely, the paucity of applicants from underrepresented groups is related to a lack of examples and role models from those communities that make the profession seem welcoming and possible for them, the disadvantages such groups face in terms of education quality and opportunity well before veterinary school, the rising cost of a veterinary medical education, and a constellation of other factors. Such factors have certainly been demonstrated to be associated with underrepresentation of African Americans, for example, in other professions, and addressing these barriers has improved diversity in these cases.
Clearly, we have a lot of work to do as a profession if we are committed to real diversity. White people must take an active part in this work, leveraging our power and privilege no support equity and improve opportunities for those who have been, and still are denied then. We must remember that diversity is not a zero-sum game in which one group must “lose” for others to succeed. No one, least of all people of color, is suggesting lowering standards or implementing some sort of active “reverse discrimination” against white people. The goal is to ensure that everyone has a chance to explore and fulfil their potential, and that barriers to this which apply disproportionally to historically marginalized groups are removed. Diversity ultimately benefits the profession and all of us in it.
As a relatively old, white, male veterinarian, I can acknowledge the injustice that has favored those like me without feeling that the effort and struggles I endured to get where I am are being invalidated. I may be good at my job, and I may have earned my place through hard work. But many people who are just as talented, just as hardworking, and who have even greater obstacles before them are as deserving but have been denied the opportunities I have had. There is no question that being white has been an advantage in my journey. It does not diminish me to acknowledge this, but it does engender a responsibility to contribute to a more just future.
Navigating Diversity and Inclusion in Veterinary Medicine; 2013, edited by Lisa M. Greenhill, Kauline Cipriani Davis, Patricia M. Lowrie and Sandra F. Amass
Minority Student Perceptions of the Veterinary Profession: Factors Influencing Choices of Health Careers; 2008, by Dr. Evan M. Morse (thesis)
Unity Through Diversity; 2006, Final Report of the AVMA Task Force on Diversity
Cultural Competence in Veterinary Practice. V.Kiefer, K. Grogan, J. Chatfield, J. Glaesemann, W. Hill, B. Hollowell, J. Johnson, D. Kratt, R. Stinson, and K. Urday. JAVMA. 2013 243:3, 326-328
A Business Case for Diversity and Inclusion: Why it is Important for Veterinarians to Embrace our Changing Communities. L Kornegay. JAVMA. May, 2011.
The Attitudes of Minority Junior High and High School Students toward Veterinary Medicine. A. Asare. J Vet Med Educ. 2007 34(2): 47-50.
Tying Art and Science to Reality for Recruiting Minorities to Veterinary Medicine. PM Lowrie. J Vet Med Educ. 2009 36(4):382-387.
Racial, Cultural, and Ethnic Diversity within US Veterinary Colleges. Greenhill, LM, PD Nelson, and RG Elmore. J Vet Med Educ. 34(2): 74-78. 2007